It’s a cold, drippy morning in the Western Ghats, the mountain ranges running along the south-western coast of India, and recognized by the UNESCO as the “hottest hotspot” for biodiversity. In the small town of Kalasa, near the Kudremukha National Park, life is stirring. A tempo carrying sleepy pilgrims wheezes up the slope, in the direction of the renowned temple that’s about 15 kilometers away. Kalasa has been my base, and I’m headed in the opposite direction: towards the Karnataka Forest Department (KFD) checkpost to register for a permit to hike the Kudremukh peak that’s within the national park. The KFD permits a maximum of 50 people per day, between June and December, to prevent overcrowding on the peak’s steep path. I’m the day’s first visitor.
After a few miles via the (barely) motorable road in a semi-open jeep that lurches this way and that over the bright red soil, characteristic of the region’s iron-ore content, I’m at the official checkpost. In Kannada, one of the numerous local languages, Kudremukha translates as ‘Horse- Face’. The peak is an eighteen-kilometer hike in total, and approximately 1892 meters above sea level.
It’s challenging to articulate why I wanted to climb the Kudremukha peak. To acquaint myself with its Shola-grassland landscape? The hope of sighting the endemic lion-tailed macaque or two? Kudremukha’s geological history, or the histories of settlement? Perhaps, ALL of the above? After all, the peak’s presence has shaped various economic and ecological events in the region. For instance, early 20th century colonial and Indian geologists drawn to Kudremukha’s iron-ore seams (and otherwise given to precise calculations of elevation, rock classification and antiquity) noted the “striking landscape”.
Later, in the 1970s, the region became home to a profitable iron-ore company–that received a bulk of its initial investment from Iran and later exported iron-ore pellets to China, Japan, and Romanian markets, among other countries.
In December 2005, the mining site was subsumed into a National Park on account of the numerous conservation and ecological studies attesting to the region’s biodiversity.
Few weeks ago, climbing through continuous south-west monsoon spray, freely-moving wind, mist, and the occasional sun, encountering excitable leeches waiting to partake of *any* potential blood-feast, some of my own thoughts circled around: warmth; coffee; if superpower flying abilities would cancel the effort/euphoria of a climb; and the topsoil variations in a rainforest, thick and gooey, firm and rich, jelly-like sludge.
How do the various textures of mud feel underfoot? What is a Shola forest, and how is it different from a tropical rainforest? How does the erasure of people-made structures facilitate ideas of a pristine national park? Do I enjoy the physicality of a climb because it involves the human body’s direct interaction with a landscape? In this sense, walking-as-ethnography is slow, it’s an act of attention to the ways in which one moves/walks within a landscape.